Easy enough to organise– but not without surprises
The problem of the best way to put together a visit to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and to then be in the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) for the 100th Anniversary of the Great October Russian Revolution seemed to have been solved when the option of taking the train from Pyongyang – the capital of the DPRK – direct to Moscow – the capital of the former Socialist country – was presented to me.
At first the arrangement seemed fairly straightforward. Instead of heading back to China at the end of the 11 Day Party Foundation Tour (which I had initially considered) I would now say my farewells to the group as I headed for the railway station in the centre of Pyongyang as they headed off to the airport for a relatively short flight to Beijing. My journey was going to be far from ‘short’ – the first stage (from Pyongyang to the biggest city in the north-east of the country, Rajin) would take 33 hours but I wasn’t in any real hurry (there being the best part of three weeks before the anniversary of the Revolution on the 7th November).
Matters started to get confusing as soon as I started to confirm my travel arrangements. It didn’t help in understanding the situation when the people I was dealing with didn’t seem to fully understand the situation either – the travel company in Berlin as well as those who worked at the Korea International Travel Company (KITC) in Pyongyang. It may be useful to remind readers here that independent travel to the DPRK is not an option and some officially recognised intermediary is a necessity.
Although slightly frustrating, as it wasn’t until I was actually in the country that I got to know my exact itinerary, it did have its plus side. People didn’t know what the situation was as not many people had actually made this journey before and they were making statements based upon what could, theoretically, be done without having a lot of actual practice to back it up. Though not a trail-blazer I very soon realised (and learnt even more so as I progressed along the almost 10,000 kilometre journey) that I wasn’t following in many others’ footsteps.
The ‘problem’ arose as it seemed to be impossible to get an exact date from Pyongyang until a matter of a week or so before departure. The date for the departure from Tumangang (the last station of the DPRK side of the border with Russia) was fixed in stone. On the other hand departures from Pyongyang seemed to be quite flexible. I couldn’t understand this as the ‘reason’ that ‘they do things differently’ in another country doesn’t make sense when it goes against all logic, especially when it comes to train timetables. After all it was around rail transport that time took on a different meaning during the Industrial Revolution in Britain, from the early part of the 19th century onwards.
The other issue with being a foreign tourist was that although the train that I eventually took from Pyongyang would go through to the terminus at Tumangang I had to get off in the city of Rajin, spend a night there and then get taken to the border station by road the next day – in order to make a late afternoon border crossing.
As an aside here I’ll comment on how information is transmitted by the people of Africa, Asia and Latin America to foreign tourists when the people giving the ‘information’ don’t have any idea of what the actual situation might be. Anyone who has travelled extensively in any of those parts of the world would have invariably come across similar situations at various times. The consequence of this is that the information that is imparted has little more practical value than what could be found in a novel.
I must stress here that the ‘information’ that is given is not passed on with any malice. What happens is that they a) don’t want to say they don’t know and b) don’t want the foreigner to leave with nothing. The theory seems to be that something, however inaccurate, is better than nothing. This meant that I received, in an authoritative tone, all kinds of answers to my questions that bore no relationship to actual reality.
In the context of the proposed journey of nine or ten days on a train there is another factor that has to be taken into account. Although not directly stated by the people I dealt with in Pyongyang they definitely thought that someone who would choose to travel all the way from Pyongyang to Moscow on a train – when they could take a flight that would take fewer hours than the train takes in days – must be crazy. People who have little chance of travelling to and from such places are probably even more bemused.
Although many people, more often than not those who have never (and don’t intend to) set foot in the DPRK write and talk about not being able to travel without being accompanied by local guides having them with you does make life an awful lot easier. The main Pyongyang Railway station was only a matter of a couple of hundred metres from my hotel, the Koryo, but on the day of departure I was collected and driven there in the mini bus that had been ‘mine’ for the three days I had had a private tour.
Tipping in Socialist Countries
Before leaving the mini-bus for the last time there was a ritual that had to be gone through and that was the tipping of the driver. This is something that is being expected in China, as well as the DPRK, as foreign tourism becomes more popular. This is expected to be paid in either Chinese Yuan or Euros (US dollars aren’t welcomed) and is one of those aspects of tourism in what are supposed to be Socialist countries which has been problematic for a long time.
Working with foreigners where, for example, meals are taken in westernised ‘Korean’ restaurants, beyond the means of many local people, a small group of a few hundred people in Pyongyang live a different life-style from their compatriots. Getting from 5-10 Euros per day from each member of the group (which is the recommended amount from virtually all the travel companies I investigated before booking my trip) means that they can, in theory, receive an income far in excess of that of the other people in their country who do much more important, useful and worthwhile jobs than cater for a bunch of over-privileged foreigners, some of whom (though by no means all) are there to find fault with as much as possible in order to return home with their ‘horror’ stories.
Unfortunately, nothing has been learnt from the experience of the Beryozka stores in the Revisionist Soviet Union where goods could only be paid for in foreign currency. In 1973 I had the experience of witnessing the guide for the group of which I was a member pulling out a roll of various European and North American currencies, which she had obviously saved up over a period of time, to take advantage of the luxury foreign-made goods that were not available in normal shops and to the vast majority of the population. The existence of such places is an anathema to Socialism and only served to perpetuate inequality and breeds corruption. I’m not aware of an equivalent shopping situation in the DPRK (although there are supermarkets in Pyongyang that will accept Chinese Yuan and Euros) but foreign currencies in the hands of a select few can only but be a cause for concern.
On top of that potential of undermining any development towards Socialism there is also the question of what role tipping should have in a society claiming to be constructing Socialism. Tipping under capitalism is used to supplement poor wages and employers use them as an excuse to pay less than the rate for the job. Any country that claims to be building any version of Socialism – as the DPRK does with its Juche variety – should outlaw tipping, considering the practice one that comes from a class divided society and the giving of which insults the worker.
But when you are at the mercy of such an arrangement it becomes churlish to not participate.
At the station there was a steady stream of people going in through the main entrance but myself and the two guides went through a door (at the left hand side of the station façade) that looked like an entrance to an office. This was the door that foreigners have to use and so we ‘jumped the queue’. I wasn’t aware that anyone really controlled that entrance but the way it was set up inside it appeared as if it was also the entrance for those who were travelling in the soft sleepers – what would be the equivalent of ‘first class’ on other rail systems. My guides had to sort out a platform ticket (so they could get out again when the train left) and no more than three or four minutes after arriving at the station we were standing on the platform.
On the platform things looked chaotic around the last carriage of the train – my soft sleeper. This was due to the fact that there were many more people seeing off friends and relations than were actually travelling – when the train did move off the carriage was far from full.
The taking of photos in the DPRK is not as restrictive as many would have you believe but a foreign tourist is always at the whim of their guides and although the two young women who had been my guides for the last three days of my trip to the country were friendly, approachable and efficient they also had an attitude of not allowing me to impose of their fellow countrymen and women.
Although I would liked to have taken a few more pictures of the station to record an impression of what it’s like in preparation for a long distance train journey in the country I do respect the idea that some people might not like having a camera pointed at them to satisfy the whims of someone from the other side of the world. In my photography in the countries I have had the chance to visit I tend to concentrate on things rather than people – not being a person who is too happy to be the subject of another’s photo myself. And anyway, the single picture I did take, of the destination board on the side of the carriage, was later deleted by the immigration police before I left the country to cross over to Russia from Tumangang – but, again, more of that later.
The journey of 10,000 kilometres starts with the first turn of the wheel
The train departed at 07.50 on the dot and worked its way through the centre of Pyongyang, passing many of the places I had visited in my 11 day trip. The train never gathered anything like the speed of trains in Europe, not least because it was a single track for much of the way and of a narrower gauge than that used in the west. This made for a more interesting journey as life outside the train didn’t go by in flash and it was possible to see much of what was taking place in different parts of the countryside. Most tours to the DPRK will take in some places outside of Pyongyang but seeing the world from the window of a mini-bus is very different from the window of a train.
(I didn’t have the information with me at the time but anyone planning this journey might find it useful to copy the relevant information about the route and the stopping stations from this website. At a speed of (very roughly 25 km per hour) you can make a guess of the station or have something to show local people to get confirmation. So many times in life ‘if we only knew then what we know now’.)
Meeting the ‘locals’
Much is made in the ‘west’ about the fact that foreigners don’t have the opportunity to meet and talk with local people when travelling in the DPRK. If these are ordinary people who are just regurgitating the pap fed to them by the capitalist media they are very often the same sort of people who go on holiday to southern Europe (here I’m talking about people from the UK) and stay in resorts where the only contact they have with the ‘locals’ is in a bar or restaurant – or even worse stay at ‘all inclusive’ holiday resorts where they never leave the complex. In a way that makes sense. They don’t go into areas with which they are unfamiliar and where they can’t be understood (most English depending upon the ‘locals’ to speak English, in whatever part of the globe they might be visiting) because they will be like fish out of water. However, when it is not permitted all of a sudden it’s something they must do or their ‘freedom’ is being limited.
If they are arrogant journalists like the BBC’s Rupert Winfield-Hayes they want to go where they are asked not to go because being part of the BBC they think they have the right to do whatever they want, wherever they want to do it. He was arrested in Pyongyang in 2016 when in the country filming for an episode of the BBC news programme ‘Panorama’. I like to think that the DPRK security forces arrested him for a joke, just to put the fear of God up him. He was such an ineffectual prick he could have done little harm.
However, there is one way that a visiting tourist can get to ‘know’ the locals and that’s by travelling on trains. Again, the travel options, at present, are limited (the route from Dandong in China and this route to the Rason area) but there’s every opportunity to meet people from the country with no one there to oversee the conversation. On the journey into the country we (I was travelling with my brother on that part of the journey) got into a conversation with someone returning home after a trip in China. He had a bit of English and the conversation was the sort you normally have on such occasions, more passing the time of day than an interrogation about conditions of life within the country. Any more than that and you go outside what is considered the norm in any country. What would the British think if every time they met someone from Europe they were asked to justify their stance on the European referendum, whatever side they took?
When you are travelling in another country there’s no sense in creating conflict with someone you don’t know, when you will only be in their company for a very short time and will almost certainly never meet again. Not least because anywhere in the world you won’t get any controversial information from someone who doesn’t know you. It takes time for people to develop trust and a train journey, or a chance encounter in a street, does not allow that trust time to develop.
You pass the time of day, possibly share a drink (as we did on the way to Pyongyang) and part wishing each other all the best.
If that’s what you wish to do when travelling then a long, overnight train journey is as good a place as any to start.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – Arriving by land from China
Towards the end of 2017 I had the opportunity to make a visit to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – the DPRK (more normally referred to as ‘North Korea’ in the capitalist countries). As many people will be aware travel in that country is not as easy as it is in other parts of the world so I was on a pre-planned, organised tour. To that tour I added a three day, private, individual tour where I was able to negotiate my own itinerary – within limits.
So I was there for a total of twelve days as a tourist. There was no official, governmental involvement and the impressions and observations (with a little bit of up to date practical information) are made based on my experience of travelling quite extensively in other parts of the world and with a world view that tries to understand those societies and cultures I have had the privilege to encounter.
In my visits to other countries – especially, but not exclusively, in Africa, Asia and Latin America – I have tried to understand how those societies work (or don’t) and how I see the people within those societies. On previous occasions I have spent many months in some countries so a period of less that two weeks is not enough time to get to know a place. However, as ignorance about the DPRK is rife throughout the western world I consider these observations and comments to be part of a debate – a debate that should be happening (but isn’t) when the drums of war are resounding around the world.
Those drums are drowning out any real discussion, any attempt to get to know anything about the country or its people.
Dandong Railway Station – Sinuiju Railway Station
Hopefully some useful information for people planning to make the overland journey to Pyongyang from Dandong in China. (The increasing acceptance by the ‘international community’, i.e., the most powerful and selfish capitalist nations on the Earth, of sanctions against the DPRK might make some of this information redundant but it is hoped that common sense, and not the fake news that pervades most public discourse, will prevail and normal communications between China and the DPRK will prevail.)
Before entering the station spend some time to have a look at the magnificent, red stone statue of Chairman Mao which stands in the square in front of the main entrance to the building. With his right arm raised in a salute he seems to be greeting the rest of the country from one of China’s most north-westerly cities. I have no information about this statue. It looks in a very good condition so I assume it is relatively new, or at least one that has been erected after the nationwide victory of the ‘capitalist roaders’, led by the renegade Deng Xioaping. Some cities and locations throughout China are starting to restore monuments that used to exist to Chairman Mao, or even installing them in places where they didn’t exist before. One such notable place is Nanjiecun in Linying County, Henan province.
The ‘international’ trains depart from the first floor (English, that is, i.e., upstairs) on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday at 09.30. (The overnight train from Beijing is due to arrive at 07.22. Information I’ve seen indicates that there’s a through train but this is not the case. It’s a completely different train that crosses over the Yalu River on the ‘Friendship Bridge’. ) The train leaves from the same platform as the waiting room (which has a small duty free) and normally consists of three, ‘hard sleeper’ carriages – that is carriages with compartments that are designed for up to six people. There’s also a baggage compartment and a travelling generator that sits behind the engine.
Friendship Bridge – Yalu River
For reasons I don’t understand almost everyone gets to the station hours before the train is due to depart, end up shoving and pushing to go through immigration and customs only to then wait around for the train to leave. Probably one of the reasons for the scrum is that some people travel with a vast amount of luggage which gets wrapped up in plastic sheeting and placed in the luggage van. At least the luggage is not too much of a problem in the passenger section of the train.
Tour companies will tell you to get there an hour before departure but don’t do so any earlier, you’ll just have more time sitting around. After the initial crush the whole area becomes very quiet and you can just sail through immigration. Perhaps arrive at the station, relax and just monitor the situation.
Most of the passengers will be returning Koreans or visiting Chinese tourists – a four day tour of the DPRK has become quite popular with Beijing based Chinese people (but, again, that might change with the demand from the US that China does its bidding and cut ties with the DPRK).
If you don’t already have (or have lost) a Departure Card they are available on a desk, on the left hand side, after passing through the metal detector and X-ray machine for luggage but before the passport control booths. If all paperwork is in order it’s a relatively painless process.
Entering the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
Even though I reject all the hype and the scaremongering that is associated with travel to the DPRK it still gets through to you and there’s an element of apprehension as you prepare for a visit to the country. Choosing to arrive by train means leaving from the Chinese border town of Dandong, crossing the Yalu River and after a very short, but very slow journey, arriving in the Korean border town of Sinuiju.
However, the heightening of tensions internationally at the moment, and especially as the Chinese are now weighing in on the side of the Americans, it pays to be circumspect when the train arrives at the Sinuiju border post. The ubiquity of smart phones and their ability to take video means that people can be tempted to film the crossing of the river and the arrival at the station. Even though on the Chinese side of the river there are, at least, three separate monuments that commemorate the friendship between the Chinese and Korean Peoples during the War of 1950-53 that relationship is becoming strained now and it’s not wise to put local patience to the test.
Monument to Volunteers of War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea
My approach to why the people and government of the DPRK take the stance that they do I will come back to later. My point here is that anyone who visits the country without at least a basic understanding of the present international situation and how sensitive that makes people in the DPRK – especially government officials – feel are being, at best foolish, at worst reckless. What maybe seen as a mere schoolboy’s prank in the US can take on a greater significance in the heightened atmosphere of the DPRK threatened with imminent destruction – as an American tourist found to his cost in 2017.
Customs and Immigration
If the journey across the river is short the stop at the station of Sinuiju would be long, two hours being allowed on the timetable (as well as the clocks going forward a half an hour). Once the train arrived a swarm of officials left the station building who divided themselves up between the three passenger carriages. Apart from these officials the military presence was minimal, a young soldier, not seriously armed, standing at either end of the platform to monitor that no one left the station. In a country where we are led to believe the army are everywhere the first impression was that things are much more threatening on passing through a major airport in the UK than entering the DPRK by land.
Although there were a couple of small groups of Chinese tourists the rest of the passengers were Koreans returning home – and us two Europeans. I don’t know how many Europeans/Westerners might choose this route but I wouldn’t have thought many but there was no real impression of surprise when the customs or immigration came to visit. What many people who have not crossed borders by rail won’t understand is that in these circumstances people don’t have to get off the train and parade in a room to get their passports/visas checked and stamped. An immigration official comes along the carriage, compares your face with the photo in the passport, piles them up and takes the whole lot to an office. I assume that if there’s a problem that person might be asked to leave the train but otherwise the next time you see your passport is when it is handed back to everyone, normally just a matter of minutes before the train leaves.
The curtness of the customs officer was down, I believe, more to lack of common language than anything else. With the Koreans or Chinese he could communicate in a meaningful manner, with us it was just one word communication – and he seemed more concerned about a mobile phone than anything else.
Here it might be useful to mention those things that are, and aren’t, permitted when entering the DPRK. Computers and cameras are no problem whatsoever – he barely looked at mine when I opened my bag. Make sure there’s nothing compromising on your computer hard drive, just in case one of the customs officials is feeling inquisitive the day you arrive. There’s no chance of a wifi connection in the country but, at a price, it is possible to send emails from the communication/business centre that you will find in all foreign tourist hotels.
Mobile phones are also not a problem they now being as ubiquitous in the DPRK as they are in most other countries in the world – all parts of the country and not just the major cities from what I saw. However, for visitors so-called ‘Smart Phones’ will function more as a recording device than anything else as roaming doesn’t exist. This ability to surreptitiously film anything might be what is in the back of the minds of the customs people (all men, I didn’t see one female customs or immigration person at the border) but if people want to do so then it’s almost impossible to stop them and the only way would be to check everyone on leaving – and that would be totally impractical, although random checks are made (as I discovered when I left by train to cross over to Russia at the end of my visit to the country. In many ways I understand their thinking but as technology races on it would be like Canute attempting to stop the tide from coming in so a more relaxed recognition of this would make life easier for all. Most regular tourists are there to try to get an understanding of the country – few would be there looking for opportunities to return home to denigrate the country and its people – journalists, on the other hand, are a different matter.
I understand it is possible to buy a local sim card but then the question would be why? I think the emphasis on the mobile was to do with making sure people were open about what they were carrying. No point in lying if at any time they can turn out all your belongings – the same as at any other country’s customs.
It’s also unwise to take in any religious books or any which criticise the country in any way – that includes guide books which seem to think they have the right (if not the obligation) to churn out the same propaganda that comes from their respective governments and media.
As an aside it’s always amused me that there are certain countries in the world where guide book compilers seem to think they should make some sort of comment on the society – normally the same propaganda churned out by their respective country’s governmental departments or the ‘facts’ reproduced in the biased media. This is especially the case in those countries that have attempted to build socialism – even in countries like China and Vietnam where socialism was ditched in favour of capitalism decades ago.
However, you don’t get the same ‘analysis’ of the political situation in countries such as the UK. When reading about Coventry where does it say in the tourist brochures that the city is the home to the biggest and busiest food bank in the country? Where does it say in guide books about the UK that it is the aim of the Tressel Trust (the biggest food bank charity in the country) is to establish a food bank ‘in every town in the country’? They want to perpetuate poverty not eliminate it. Where does it say in guide books to the UK that virtually all major cities, the length and breath of the country, have seen an exponential growth in the number of people who are sleeping rough on the street and the problem of homelessness is becoming a national disgrace? I could go on. This is just another example of the chauvinistic, parochial and xenophobic attitude that is characteristic of arrogant capitalist hypocrisy. More on that later.
Returning to the customs check. If anyone was getting any extra attention it was the Koreans who were returning to their own country – the tourists and their luggage just going through the formalities. And that makes sense. Those people more likely to be bringing in contraband of any sort would be those who knew what to do with it once in the country. But even here there was a relaxed atmosphere as it looked like some of the passengers on the train knew the officials as many of them made regular journeys, on business of some kind, to China on a regular basis, as was the case with the two Koreans in our compartment.
One thing I did learn, or more exactly had reconfirmed, is that customs officials worldwide don’t like rummaging through rucksacks. Even though they can make you turn out everything if they so wish from my experience they only peek into the top and then give it all up as a bad job.
Once the customs had left the carriages and the passports were in the hands of the immigration people everyone relaxed. People started to leave the train and stretch their legs on the platform. When I went to look at the engine (not having had the opportunity in Dandong) it was indicated that I was straying into a place I shouldn’t be going, that is too close to the end of the platform, but there was no hostility involved – the young guard just doing his job.
A matter of minutes before the train was due to leave the different piles of passports were carried from the station building and everyone returned to their space on the train – more likely to get their passport back with no problems as they are handed out in the order they were collected. A foreign passport is something of a novelty in a number of places where I’ve travelled and it’s not uncommon for there to be a slight delay in getting yours back as people on the way flick through the pages, both for the document itself, which is often different from their own and also to have a look at any stamps and visas. Some more confident will often come up and ask to have a look and within the confines of a bus or a train that is moving that’s not a possible scam but a genuine curiosity about other people and their travels.
Everyone with their passports and no one – to the best of my knowledge – left on the platform the train pulled away from the station, leaving China behind and headed, at a gentle but not too slow a pace, towards Pyongyang, about 5 hours away.
Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum – Pyongyang
The complex that is the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum contains one of the largest collections of Socialist Realist art in Pyongyang, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Comprising of ten slightly more than life-size tableau, stand alone statues, bas reliefs and mosaics these amazing works of art tell the story of how the people in the north of Korean peninsula stood up against the invading forces of the United Nations – puppets of United States imperialism – during the just over three years (25th June, 1950 – 27th July, 1953) of what the west calls ‘The Korean War’ but which the people of the north call the ‘Victorious Fatherland Liberation War’.
(The other large concentration of Socialist Realist Sculptures are at the Mansudae Grand Monument where the two huge statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are flanked by two tableau, comprising 228 bronze figures which depict, on the left, the War of Liberation and, on the right, the Construction of Socialism. This is considered the most sacred site in the DPRK and photographing, in detail, the tableau is not really possible.)
From the introduction to the book ‘Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum’ (Foreign Languages Publishing House, DPRK, 2014):
The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum is located on the bank of the picturesque Pothong River in Pyongyang, the capital of the DPRK.
Under the auspices and energetic guidance of Marshal Kim Jong Un, the museum was renovated in July Juche 102 (2013) on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the victory in the war in order to hand down to posterity the brilliant tradition of invincibility and immortal patriotic exploits performed by Generalissimos Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il and the indomitable fighting spirit and heroic feats displayed by the DPRK service personnel and people in the struggle for national defence.
Covering an area of 93,000 m², it comprehends the protracted history of the Korean people’s struggle, ranging from the periods of the anti-Japanese revolutionary struggle and the Fatherland Liberation War to the anti-imperialist, anti-US showdown in postwar years. On display there are over 300 revolutionary relics, 120,000 war relics, materials and data in their original state.
With a total floor space of 51,000 m² its main building consists of three storeys above and one storey under the ground.
In the central hall stands the colour statue of Generalissimo on Kim 11 Sung who is acknowledging enthusiastic cheers of the Korean service personnel and people in the plaza of war victory in July 1953.
On the first floor are a hall displaying the materials relating to the anti-Japanese revolutionary struggle which was organized and led by Kim Il Sung, especially those relating to main operations and battles fought in those days, a hall displaying the materials about the building of regular armed forces for the first time in Korea after its liberation, and a hall displaying material evidence that the US imperialists who had occupied southern half of Korea committed, in collusion with the south Korean puppet army, armed provocations against the north and at last unleashed the Korean war.
On show on the second floor are the materials relating with the strategic policies for every period and stage of the Fatherland Liberation War advanced by Supreme Commander Kim Il Sung, brilliant military strategist and iron-willed commander, main battles and heroic struggle of soldiers and civilians who defended every inch of their country at the cost of their lives to carry out the orders of the Supreme Commander and other relics.
On the same floor are also halls dedicated to the Chinese People’s Volunteers who participated in the war upholding the slogan “Resist America, aid Korea, safeguard the home and defend the motherland,” to the peoples over the world who rendered selfless material aid and moral support to the Korean people, to the materials about brutal atrocities committed by the US forces during the war and their bitter defeat, and to the brilliant victory won by the soldiers and people in the hard-fought war for national defence. On this floor are the halls of peculiar style dedicated to the anti-Japanese revolutionary fighters, leading commanding officers of the Korean People’s Army during the Fatherland Liberation War and internationalist fighters.
On the corridor linking the main building with the hall dedicated to the battle for liberating Taejon are exhibited the photos showing war heroes’ feats that would go down in national history and their relics.
On the third floor are the halls displaying the materials relating with Party political work Kim Il Sung conducted energetically to enlist all the soldiers and people in the effort to achieve victory in the war and those showing the struggle of the officers and men of services, arms and corps and the brave activities of the people in the rear.
In the hall dedicated to the Liberation of Taejon there is a large-scale panorama showing the victorious battle, which was recorded as a “living example of modern encirclement battle,” fought in line with the original tactics and under the adroit command of Supreme Commander Kim Il Sung.
The museum has also a hall that comprehensively shows the immortal exploits of Generalissimo Kim Jong Il who adorned the history of anti-imperialist, anti-US showdown with victory on the strength of Songun-based revolutionary leadership.
On show outside the museum are the merited weapons in the war, enemy military hardware captured during and after the war, and the Pueblo, a US armed spy ship which was captured in 1968 while committing espionage acts in the territorial waters of the DPRK.
The museum, built in a characteristic way in conformity with the architectural and aesthetic demands of the new century, will remain a structure representing the unshakeable faith and will of the Korean service personnel and people who are determined to defend the exploits of victory performed by the Generalissimos and carry them forward through generations under the wise leadership of Marshal Kim Jong Un, and a symbol of eternal victory of Songun Korea with great traditions.
The uniqueness of Korean Socialist Realist sculptures
Those of you who have visited this site before will be aware of the respect I hold for the art that’s represented in the Albanian lapidars – and that respect remains undiminished. But (why is there always a but?) the examples you will see in the DPRK are different. They tell the same story – more or less – but the images (and this is in all the main sculptural fields – sculpture, bas reliefs and mosaics) seem, in a sense, to be more refined. There’s a, dare I say it, finesse to the images in Pyongyang and the rest of the country which is missing from those in Tirana and other parts of Albania.
I’ve discussed this difference between different Socialist countries and the ‘feel’ you get from observing those images which were produced during the period of the construction of Socialism. For example, although both fine sculptures in their own right there’s a marked difference in style between the two bronze statues of Comrade JV Stalin which now stand neglected behind the National Art Gallery in the centre of Tirana.
As I consider the matter more I believe it’s possibly a difference between European Socialist Realist Art and that produced in Asia. The art traditions of the far east were finer than those of the west even before the first Socialist Revolution in Russia in 1917. The fine prints that have been produced on all sorts of materials in Asia are reflected more in some of the examples of British realism of the early part of the 20th century rather than the work of the Soviet Union or the paintings inside the actual National Art Gallery in Tirana.
When it comes to sculptures I believe the Asian examples, of both the DPRK and Socialist China, have been able to capture emotions in a manner that was much more subtle than their European counter-parts. The finest example I know of in China is the series of clay statues which were produced in 1968 (during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution) depicting the suffering of pre-revolutionary peasants. This series of statues telling the story of how poor peasants had to make payments in kind to oppressive and exploitative landlords is called ‘Rent Collection Courtyard’ (with the interesting Introduction to photographic version) which were displayed in what used to be a landlord’s house in Szechuan Province.
(I don’t know the fate of this collection of 114 statues. They were reproduced and put on show in Beijing but the politics represented by this story of the peasantry doesn’t fit with the present capitalist regime in China. The post 1976 (the date from which all the revolutionary achievements of the People’s Republic of China began to be reversed) regime even has an impact upon the public art, witness the tableau outside of Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum in Beijing – impressive in many ways but lacks the passion of the likes of ‘Rent Collection Courtyard’. Their sense of aesthetics also doesn’t bode well – just have a look at what they used to celebrate the Anniversary of Chairman Mao‘s Declaration of the People’s Republic in October 2017.)
Tienanmen Square – October 2017
It’s revolutionary passion that determines the feeling and impression the viewer gets from the tableau at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum. The artists believed in what they were creating. Believed in the story they wanted to tell. Believed that it had a purpose over and above their own personal vanity. Yes, they should be proud of what they had created but their names will not be found on the results. They subsume their personal ego to the common good – which should be the aim of artists, as with all other workers, in a Socialist society. Celebrity status is an anathema to Socialism. All of these artists work out of the Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang.
This finesse means that you get a much better impression of the emotions that the artists have wanted to create in their characters – anger, jubilation, compassion, determination, struggle, happiness and joy, etc.
The sculptural aspects of the complex
To enter the museum grounds you go through a triumphal arch. On the left side is a statue of three males representing the three military services – army, navy and air force. Above them is the number 1950, the year the War of Liberation started. They are dressed and armed with the weapons of that time. On the opposite side are three other males, of the same military services, but now everything has moved on a few years and their weapons and clothing have been updated.
1950-1953 – How things had changed
Above the vehicle entrance to the site, carved into the stone, are partially unfurled ceremonial banners, and in between the two sets of three banners is a campaign medal, the star in evidence.
Going higher there’s a long, rectangular metal plaque with gold lettering where it is written in Korean (obviously) the words ‘Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum’.
On the highest point of the arch, in the middle, is a large, metal rondel with a large star in the centre. Flanking the star on either side is an almost semi-circle of ripe ears of rice. This follows the format established by the Soviet Union where the rice would have been replaced with ears of grain but in both cases stresses both the idea of providing the staple food as well as a reference to the importance of agriculture. On either side of this rondel is a DPRK National Flag, also of metal. This flag in reality is a red star inside a white rondel which sits on a red background. A blue strip, about a fifth of the width of the flag, is above and below the red portion. This design was adopted in 1948.
Once through the arch you enter a large, open esplanade. This, I assume, is where formal events take place at the location, especially anniversaries of the Liberation War, as this is the start of what is officially designated as the ‘Monument to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War 1950-1953’. This was created in 1993 in time for the celebrations of the 40th Anniversary of the end of the war and extends from this esplanade to the single statue of the ‘Victory’ just before the entrance to the Museum building itself. This monument is dedicated to the Korean People’s Army and Korean People who defeated the US imperialists and its allies in the Fatherland Liberation War.
(I can understand why nations celebrate the end of wars but haven’t been able to get my head around the obsession that has gripped officialdom (and some of the population) in Britain over the start of the 1914 World War – the war that was supposed to end all war – and at every possible opportunity in the subsequent (almost) four years. I can only assume it’s part of a propaganda battle to keep the population numb with the idea of war and allows the country to threaten, and often take action, against other perceived enemies. There is only one year (1968) since the end of the Second World War in 1945 where British armed forces have not been involved in killing people in other parts of the world. On the other hand the DPRK has not invaded any country and they are branded as the aggressors. But then, why should we take facts into account?)
There’s a large, metal schematic of the complex, at the edge of the grassed area.
Schematic of the Museum Complex
On either side of this plaque there are two Korean Soldiers – effectively on sentry duty to the monument. Standing to attention, with a rifle hanging from a strap over their right shoulders, they stand in front of huge stylised red flags, constructed of marble. They are looking slightly to their left, therefore covering the space between them. The soldier on the left stands underneath the symbol of the Korean Workers’ Party – the hammer, sickle and ink brush – and the soldier on the right stands beneath the emblem of the DPRK. At the top is a large red star, radiating light to all below. Beneath that is the outline of Mount Paektu, the highest mountain in the country and one which has had symbolic importance for centuries. Next is a schematic representation of a hydro-electric dam with a pylon taking the power to other parts of the country. Supporting these images, on both sides, are ripe ears of rice. Finally, in gold lettering on a symbolic red scroll is written the words ‘Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’.
From here on symmetry rules – as it does in many of the monuments in Pyongyang, both their construction and the relationship they might have with other structures in the city. One of the consequences of the blanket bombing of the North’s capital between 1950 and 1953 was that during reconstruction the architects were provided with a, more or less, blank canvas as there were virtually no buildings that survived intact in the city. That US bombing campaign saw more tons dropped on the north of Korea in those three years than were dropped by all combatant nations in the Second World War. That unenviable ‘record’ was broken when the US decided that it had the right to determine the future of yet another Asian people, when they interfered and invaded Vietnam in the 1960s.
Down the centre is an immaculately manicured lawn with seasonal flowers in the beds. There are also a couple of large and ornate fountains which are connected by a tunnel of water when operating. This whole area looks impressive at night (see the front of the booklet on the museum, link below) but, unfortunately a night time visit wasn’t on the cards when I was in the country.
However, for me, the main interest is the collection of ten, large tableau which seek to tell the story of the Liberation War. There are four of these on each side of the lawns, then there’s a smaller esplanade where two others flank the large statue of the male allegorical representation of ‘Victory’.
Some of those tableau represent specific battles or campaigns but in general they represent the whole nation’s struggle against the invading, imperialist forces. The three main strands of the armed forces, the army, navy and air force, are depicted as well as the ever important guerrilla forces and the role of the work carried out in the rear. Women are shown (although in a minority) both armed and taking part in battles as regular fighters or guerrillas, but also in supplying the front with necessary equipment and materials. As in the various battles and wars that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the People’s Republic of China, the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam had to fight to achieve and then construct Socialism women played a crucial role in the final victory.
The group statues also illustrate those values that a Socialist country wants to celebrate from those who have fought in the past as well as to instil such values in future generations.
The People’s Liberation Navy
People’s Liberation Army
Liberation Air Force
Women in the Liberation War
Civilians are warriors too
Sweat of her labour
Behind the group sculptures on the right (as you walk towards the museum building) is a mock-up of trench warfare that leads to open sheds where captured military hardware of the invaders is stored. On the left hand side, behind other plastic trenches, is a collection of the hardware used by the People’s Liberation Army, including the likes of Russian MIG jets and T34 tanks.
The capture of The Pueblo
January 1968 wasn’t a good month for the US President Johnson or the USA in general, when it came to their foreign ‘adventures’. On the 23rd their spy ship, The Pueblo, was boarded and captured by the forces of the DPRK whilst carrying out surveillance activities in the East Sea of Korea/Sea of Japan. A week later the Tet Offensive began in Vietnam – the one single event in that murderous war that showed the US imperialists that – however much they spent, however many Vietnamese they killed and however many of their own troops would return in body bags or scarred for life – they would be unable to win.
The Pueblo – US Spy Ship
The DPRK, obviously pleased to have achieved such an important propaganda coup, didn’t flinch under pressure from the US to return the boat and its crew and it wasn’t until 11 months later, when the US admitted its espionage activities, that they got their crew back. The ship, no. It is moored on the banks of the River Potong and is now a permanent part of the exhibits of the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum and a visit is always on the itinerary of all visitors to the museum.
However, this episode didn’t deter the US from maintaining spying activities over the country and they faced another disaster on April 15th 1969 when one of their spy planes, EC-121 was shot down and all 31 Americans on board were killed. Now, I’m sure, a number of satellites regularly monitor what’s going on in the DPRK.
The statue of ‘Victory’ is posed in a manner which is common in Socialist Realist military monuments, a soldier going forward but looking behind and calling for others to join him/her in the advance. Here he holds a DPRK flag, his right hand high on the flag pole, with his left arm outstretched behind him, his hand adding urgency to his call for others to join the fight. Hanging from a strap around his neck is a Soviet Shpagin PPSh-41, sub-machine gun, millions of which had been produced in the Soviet Union for the defeat of the Hitlerites in the Great Patriotic War and which were now used in another war against an aggressive, invading force.
The Museum Entrance Façade
Entrance to the interior of the museum is by a door in the centre of the concave façade just behind the statue ‘Victory’. Before going inside have a look at the 17 large bas reliefs that take up the whole of the frontage. These tell the story of the Fatherland Liberation War, some images reflecting actual events whilst others episodes of warfare that would have taken place during the three years of the conflict. Only one of them has a date, (7 27) the 7th July, and that’s the one on the extreme right, which shows an image of the celebration of the end of the war in 1953. If you have had a look at the statues in the Memorial Park you will notice that certain images are repeated in a slightly different form, but as with the statues all the armed forces are represented and the role of the regular and guerrilla fighters, the old and the young, of men and women are all represented and their achievements and efforts commemorated and celebrated.
All the images in the centre of these bas reliefs are different but the surround are in common – apart from the slogan written at the top. A folded, ceremonial scroll creates the border at the top and to about half way down on both sides. Then, on the right hand side is a furled national flag which just shows the star. On the left hand side a similar banner is folded to reveal the symbol of the Korean Workers’ Party – the hammer, sickle and ink brush. (The Party Foundation Monument is a huge representation of this symbol.) Above and below these two banners ears of ripe rice poke their way into the light.
At the bottom there’s a busy scene. There are three, partially furled banners on each side which rise from the bottom centre to each side of the bas relief, forming a V for Victory. All these banners have a spear shaped finial at the top. At the point where these banners cross there’s a large red star surrounded by ears of rice – similar to the star over the main triumphal entry arch. On the banner closest to the viewer on the left hand side is a large star and on the right the emblem of the DPRK – as described above. Finally, at the very bottom are more ears of rice.
Female guerrilla activity and the Red Star
At the right hand edge of the concave facade the wall becomes convex and here there’s a mosaic depicting a victory of the People’s Liberation Army over the US imperialist forces. Flags of the DPRK flutter in the wind and the largest, which dominates the mosaic, is attached to the central figure’s rifle (again another trope that can be seen in Albanian lapidars, for example the statue at Fier Martyrs’ Cemetery). In celebration of their victory the men (strangely all men in this image), some of them wounded and bandaged, have their arms in the air, weapons in hands as they cheer themselves for their success. At the base of the image a tattered Stars and Stripes (the US flag) of the defeated aggressor lies in the dirt. To its left is a discarded helmet of an absent US soldier, the skull and crossbones image indicating that they have brought death to a country where they have no right to be.
US = Death
There are many fine mosaics, some of them very large, in Pyongyang and other locations in the DPRK (some of which I will be posting at a later time) but this one at the museum is slightly different. Most of the mosaics use small pieces of coloured stone. Here, on the other hand, the image is almost monochrome as the image is created by a handful of colours (a couple of shades of brown, black, white and a slightly bluish off-white) on rectangular tiles. Some of these are broken but the majority of the image is constructed by a technique that is similar to brick laying, the tiles in a regular pattern. From afar it’s difficult to even realise that it is a mosaic but getting close you can appreciate the artistry of those workers from the Mansudae Art Studio who created these images.
On the left hand side of the bas reliefs there’s another large mosaic. This is, again, a victory scene but this time a group of combatants are on the rocky summit of a high hill. Tall pine trees set the scene but it’s uncertain exactly what has been achieved. Interestingly here the banner is not the national flag but the red flag of Communism. Although a scene of jubilation the feeling is different. Yes there are one or two weapons raised high in the air but the celebration is much more intimate. An older man, who could be the commander of the group, is hugging a young bugler and a couple of young women are also holding each other. You get the impression of what has been achieved is a victory over their own weaknesses rather than that of the enemy – as in the first mosaic.
Kneeling down at the bottom left of the image a male soldier has scooped up a couple of handfuls of soil which he holds in his hands as he looks, smiling, in the same direction as the others. Soil to a peasant is everything and here we are given the impression that these fighters are now the possessors of all they survey.
The rest of the outside
There were many parts of the building, from the outside, I wasn’t able to visit due to constraints of time but I was aware that there were many other bas reliefs on display, especially on the part of the museum extension that was completed in 2012.
It’s not permitted to take pictures inside the museum but you can get an idea of what is presented from book Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, published in 2014. Unfortunately, although an English version exists (the introduction at the beginning of the blog comes from that version) it’s not available for download. To get a copy which shows the same images but with captions in Korean go to Publications of the DPRK, click on the Korean page (the language link on the extreme left) and type 조국해방전쟁승리기념관 in the search box.
Who started the war?
No one ever starts wars – or, at least, it’s always the other side. That obviously is impossible. War is the extension of politics by other means and truth is always the first casualty of war. Whatever answer you give to this question in relation to the Fatherland Liberation War, as well as in what you might call that particular conflict, is equally a statement of political allegiance.
I don’t intend to go into any depth here about the conflict between 1950 and 1953 – which, in theory still exists. An armistice was signed, not a treaty. However, as this post is about the Museum in Pyongyang that celebrates the achievements of the workers and peasants of the north in that war I don’t think it can be completely ignored.
So a few points:
The idea of ‘drawing lines’ at the end of World War Two might have seemed like a good idea at the time but it’s long-term effects have been disastrous for many millions of people. I believe this was agreed by the Soviet union as an attempt to prevent war – the problem the agreement was made with imperialist powers who were not prepared to give up what they had or wouldn’t be prevented from acquiring more control in those parts of the world where the weakened European imperialist could no longer guarantee their control of the old colonies.
Although prepared to support the DPRK against imperialist aggression both the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China were tired of war and it made no sense to instigate another confrontation with the capitalist states so soon after such destructive wars in their respective countries. The US had no qualms about this having benefited from the World War Two and feeling that it had the right to decide what peoples’ should do and what system they should live under.
It was under US instigation that aggressive border controls were set up along the 38th parallel in 1946, restricting movement and creating needless antagonism in the border region.
The US constantly went back on agreements when they could get a way with it. In Korea they supported the ultra-right, ultra-nationalist, neo-Fascist Syngman Rhee who would be a willing tool in the attempts by the US to destroy any attempts to construct Socialism in the Korean peninsula. (It should be remembered, when many people refer to ‘Democratic’ South Korea, that Rhee and his successors were virtual dictators of the country and it wasn’t until 1988 that any sense of a parliamentary system was instituted in the country. During all that time the country was supported militarily, politically and economically by the US – with no criticism of a dictatorship.)
Korea was seen by the US as a place where they had to stand against the spread of Communism, especially after the success of the Communist Party of China, led by Chairman Mao, and the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The failure of the US (and its UN puppet supporters, such as the UK) to defeat the DPRK in the 1950s was to lead, inevitably, to the US involvement in Vietnam in the 1960s.
Although tensions were high at the beginning of 1950 overtures from the DPRK for nationwide elections were summarily rejected by the puppet regime in the south. Only a spark was needed to ignite a full confrontation but the south (with American support) made no attempt to reduce the tense atmosphere.
The U.S. Diplomat John Foster Dulles visited Korea on 18 June 1950, seven days before hostilities broke out. Syngman Rhee would have done nothing without US approval and would also do whatever they required.
The US sought ‘legitimacy’ from the United nations, securing a resolution of the Security Council on 7th July 1950. The USSR at that time was boycotting the UN in support of the seat on the Council reserved for China was held by the Nationalist Government in Taiwan and denying hundreds of millions of Chinese representation in the international forum. The US doesn’t always need UN support (and had not called for it in the previous five years in their wars of intervention and didn’t call for it in Vietnam) but it helps in the propaganda war to have a piece of paper to justify the killing. When they failed to get such a resolution in 2003 they invaded Iraq nonetheless.
For more detailed ideas of how the war is seen by the DPRK have a look at The Korean War – An unanswered question. If you want the point of view of the ‘victim of aggression’ – the put upon United States – I’m sure you will find justification in spades.
The attempted isolation of the DPRK means that it’s not very easy to obtain information about the country from the country itself – most information in the west being filtered through antagonistic capitalist media outlets. For those interested in the opportunity to see the DPRK from another perspective go to Publications of the DPRK where there are a number of language options (although not all books and pamphlets are necessarily available in all those languages).